Illinois graduate student sues student government over closed-door meeting

A student government member at Northern Illinois University is suing the student government body after his fellow representatives conducted a closed-door meeting to decide whether to impeach the student government’s vice president. 

Leon Kincaid, a graduate student at NIU, filed an open meetings lawsuit against the Northern Illinois Student Association Senate earlier this month, arguing senate representatives violated the state’s open meeting law, despite the student representatives’ justification that the association is a private entity. 

“Public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business,” reads the lawsuit. “Access to public records promotes transparency and accountability at all levels of government and is crucial to democracy.” 

Kincaid is a Student Association Senator and on the Student Conduct Board, according to his biography on NIU’s Student Association website. His attorney could not be reached for comment.

In November, the senate held a nine-hour closed session to discuss the possibility of impeaching Student Association Vice President Reggie Bates, who was charged with neglect of duty earlier that month, according to the lawsuit. During the meeting, Bates was found guilty on two specifications but was exonerated of the charges by a 14-21-5 vote that was closed to the public.

A day later, the Northern Star, the student-run newspaper at NIU, published an editorial criticizing the decision to close the session. The editorial, which is cited in the lawsuit, reported that student representatives justified the act by arguing that the senate is not a public body and is thus not subject to the open meetings law.

Illinois’ Open Meetings Act defines a public body as any “legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State,” and ensures those meetings are open to the public. In the editorial, student editors argue that the student senate acts as an advisory board to NIU, a state institution, and participates in the shared governing process.

According to the open meetings law, there is a exemption that would allow public bodies to close meetings when they would endanger personal privacy or constitute an “unwarranted invasion” of privacy. The law also states that the exemptions for open meetings “shall be strictly construed against closed meetings.”

Even if a student government meeting does fall under the exemption mandated in the open meetings law, student editors argued the law still does not exempt student representatives from holding a public vote. Timothy Brandner, SA Sergeant at Arms, told Northern Star reporters that the senate did not hold a public vote over the vice president’s impeachment because people raised concerns that senators could face retaliation.

“How else are public officials, who claim to represent students in the shared governance process, supposed to be held accountable?” reads the editorial. “SA elections are held openly, it meets openly, its members speak openly, it votes openly and it shares its budget openly, but now it wants to close its doors.”

The lawsuit points out that the university’s student government oversees a budget of more than $6.5 million and acts as a public body by providing a number of student services, which includes a university bus system, a physical therapy clinic and a student legal department. But without action from the court, the lawsuit argues the senate will continue to claim private status and violate open meetings law. 

The lawsuit asks for the court to require the student senate to pay a civil penalty between $2,500 and $5,000 for violation of the state’s open meetings act.

Student journalists at the University of Central Florida faced similar restrictions when they were not allowed to enter a student government hearing that would decide if a student body presidential candidate violated campaign regulations., a student-run news organization, sued the university and requested a temporary injunction that would provide them with immediate access to the hearings. The lawsuit argued that student body statute requires student government meetings to be subject to Florida’s state record law, and the hearings have been historically open to the public. The court did not grant the injunction.